Aug. 28--ANDOVER -- Raytheon Co., whose military radars scan the skies to spot hostile aircraft and missiles, is readying a new system that will help US border authorities peer into trucks, rail cars, and shipping containers to thwart the smuggling of nuclear materials.
The nuclear detection system, called an advanced spectroscopic portal, or ASP, is part of a Raytheon push into the growing homeland security market. And its partnership with a Canadian company on the screening program is pioneering a new collaboration model, enabling the Waltham defense contractor to rapidly adopt emerging technologies to use in homeland security.
"There's a lot of ways we can use technology to make our country safer from terrorist attacks," said Michael A. Sharp , the ASP program director at Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems unit here.
Raytheon began testing new software for the ASP system last week at the Chalk River, Ontario, site of its partner, Bubble Technology Industries. Under a $28 million contract Raytheon won in July from the Department of Homeland Security, the ASP partners are building six engineering development models for government testing and 26 working portals for airports, seaports, and border crossings.
But the contract is seen as only the first step in what could become Raytheon's largest nondefense program by the end of the decade. Homeland security officials, who'd like to deploy the new portals at more than 600 ports of entry, have estimated the program could be worth more than $1 billion over the next five years.
The work would be divided among Raytheon, which has based its program in Andover, and two other contractors: Waltham's Thermo Electron Corp., which runs its portal program out of New Mexico, and the European-owned Canberra, which has its program in Connecticut. The technology also carries the potential for substantial foreign sales.
Adoption of the program could be slowed, however, by competing homeland security demands and bureaucracy within the homeland security department and the various port authorities and municipalities that control US ports, securities analysts warned.
"It's a huge market opportunity, but it's a matter of how quickly the Department of Homeland Security moves in funding the effort," said Peter J. Arment , vice president and analyst for JSA Research in Newport, R.I. "And the ports all move at their own pace."
In the ASP program, and other programs such as Project Athena, a maritime defense system, and an airport perimeter detection system, Raytheon has been repurposing technologies, such as sensors and signal processing, that it first developed for Pentagon applications.
"This technology is not new to us," said Mary D. Petryszyn , vice president of joint battlespace integration at Raytheon's defense unit. "Radiation detection is just a different kind of detection capability."
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, many ports installed radiation monitoring systems based on older technology. While the systems can detect radioactive materials, they often generate false alarms from naturally occurring radiation in containers loaded with products like bananas, fertilizer, and cat litter. "The current systems can detect the presence of radiation, but they can't discriminate between a threat source and an innocent source," said Lianne D. Ing , vice president of business development at Bubble Technology Industries.
Nuclear physicists from Bubble Technology, a 50-person commercial spinoff of Canada's nuclear research laboratory, developed a more sophisticated nuclear detection system, working initially with the Raytheon-backed Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems at Northeastern University in Boston.
When the new systems measure energy, they convert it into electronic signals. Raytheon engineers, with their signal processing expertise, can examine the signals and differentiate between hazardous and benign radioactive signatures.
At its integrated defense systems complex here, Raytheon, prime contractor and systems integrator for the ASP team, has set up a new production line for the 7-ton portals, which look like giant stereo speakers. Raytheon will produce different versions of the portals to screen cargo and rail cars at border crossings, as well as mobile versions that could be trucked to sites where there are terror threats.
About 50 of Raytheon's employees are now working on the ASP program here, with another five posted at the Bubble site in Ontario, and the program is expected to grow in coming years, said Sharp, the program manager. "I've told the customer on numerous occasions that I'll never say no to the number of systems they want to order," he said.
Sharp said the partnership with Bubble represented a new model -- forging alliances with smaller and more nimble technology companies -- that could help Raytheon grow in the changing homeland security environment.
"We hope to use this model in the area of chem-bio protection," he said. "There's a lot of little companies that come out of universities, and that's where the technology can well up."